Gordon Grice

The Widow and the Suicide

. . . a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

          ¾ Robert Frost, “Range-Finding”

jacksonM.jpg (50465 bytes)A year before, a man had killed himself with a borrowed pistol in the little shack. The moral dimension of his death meant nothing to the invertebrates I came looking for. His death only meant that such creatures had gone unmolested in this patch of shelter for a while, making the place a good hunting ground.

I had heard about the suicide when it was news, but since then I had just about forgotten it. The farmer who owned the shack gave me permission to explore a certain stretch of ground. “You can go in the hired hand’s shack if you want,” he said. “Nobody lives there anymore.”

I walked into the shack and found a web right away. It was a profusion of erratic angles. About two feet above the cement floor its strands became so numerous as to form a loose cloud the color of dirty cotton. Below that, the strands were so sparse I could lose sight of them. Each strand was invisible from some points of view, sheathed in glare from other angles, so that the entire web seemed to shift like a hologram as I walked around it.

Although it was as big as a modest coffee table, it was a simple cobweb of the sort that frequently annoys fastidious housekeepers. The same person who admires the beauty of an orb web in his garden may assiduously destroy every cobweb he finds in his kitchen. This prejudice is a microcosm of human failing. We like the orb web because its kind of order is readily apparent. The cobweb has its own brand of order. It is, as Emily Dickinson put it, a continent of light, a patch of constructed ground from which the spider may never stray. It is also, among other things, an efficient snare.

This particular cobweb advertised its efficacy to anyone who cared to look at the graveyard beneath it. Twenty-six wing-sheathes of June beetles lay on the cement. Each sheathe--they are really the beetles’ front wings, modified into protective armor--was the color of fresh brown shoe polish. They reminded me of the fenders of old Chevys; the place looked like a miniature junkyard. In the role of discarded tires were the carcasses of the primitive creatures children call roly-polies or pill bugs. Their simple and effective strategy for defense is to curl into a ball, closing their antennae and their fourteen legs and their soft bellies in a sphere of armor.

An effective strategy, that is, until the roly-poly wanders into a cobweb. He leads with his antennae and gets them stuck in a strand of web anchored to the ground. When he rolls reflexively into a ball, he curls around the fatal strand, perhaps touching the glue with every limb he has. He’s hog-tied himself, and the spider can take her time dispatching him.

I looked into the corner of the shack, where the web reached behind an exposed wall stud. There I saw the spider’s retreat, a thickened bubble of filthy silk. In the shadow near the retreat hung the spider--a profusion of crooked legs, the spherical black belly marked with a distorted hourglass the color of dried blood. It was a black widow.

In a heap of junk outside the shack I found a rusted chisel. A few yards away was a barbed wire fence, and one of its posts seemed deformed with bulbous tumors which were actually cicadas. They were newly emerged from their hibernation in the ground, most of them still in the gray-brown shells they had climbed the fence post to shed. One of them had already shucked its husk. Its body was tinged with green like the living subcutaneous layer of a sapling--a color that would give way to gold and white if the creature lived another hour. It was trying to spread its wet translucent wings to dry. I rejected this one in favor of a cicada whose shell was just beginning to split down the back. Either one would have suited my need. I suppose I chose the one in the shell because of a vague intuition about justice--no one should die while learning to spread his wings, or some such sentiment.

After gathering up the cicada and the chisel, I returned to the dead man’s shack to make the capture. These tools were not ideal for the purpose, but they were handy. I tossed the cicada into the web. The slice of green hide showed through the burst seam on its back. The creature resembled some ponderous dinosaur in miniature. The cicada is one of the strongest insects, but the slow churning of its digging-claws could not free it from the widow web. The widow emerged immediately from her hiding place, rushing out toward the cicada. When she was too far out to make a quick escape, I slashed at the web with the chisel. The tearing silk sounded like grease popping in a skillet.

My strategy was to maroon the widow on the floor, where she would be easy to capture in a jelly jar I had brought along. Many strands clung to the chisel. When I tried to twist the tool out of their sticky grasp, they wound around it; it was like the paper cone at the center of a swirl of cotton candy. The widow scrambled for her retreat even as all her aerial avenues wrenched about and altered their directions in her claws. She ran along the strands to the chisel where they all converged. She ran up the chisel to the hand that held it. She ran up the hand to the forearm behind it.

I screamed, cursed, danced like an idiot, and ended by dislodging the spider from my arm without getting bitten. She managed to attach a new silk line to my wrist as she fell--the point of attachment tickled as if butterfly-kissed. The line paid out from the spinnerets at the rear of her abdomen, slowing her fall. She flung her legs wide, ready to catch anything that might break her fall. Touching down lightly on the cement, she ran, her globose abdomen making a preposterously large burden. She looked like Santa Claus rushing away with his bag of gifts. Panting with fear, I nonetheless managed to set the jar in her path and prod her into it.

The cicada lumbered away on the cement like a wind-up toy, trailing ten inches of silk.


Before stumbling onto the dead man’s shack, I’d meant to look for black widows in junk.

A neglected pile of bricks, for example, is often a fertile ground for widow-hunting. Every hole in a brick is a chance to find something interesting. Sometimes a cockroach has died in a brick cavity, having misjudged his own size. He lies lodged and dead. And sometimes, a black widow will unfold herself, like a nightmare, from the brick. She looks unreal: too perfectly round, too clean and sleek to lie in such rot, or even to live in this world. She is more like something plastic, cast in a mold, immune to dirt and imperfection.

In pursuing my unorthodox hobby, I’ve found black widow webs inside broken-down combines; beneath sheet metal; stretched across the blade of a garden plow; under railroad ties used for landscapingthe thumb-thick bolt-holes in these are ready-made widow retreats. All manner of human implements are fit for a widow’s use.

My family and I were sitting at a picnic table in a public park recently when my wife looked down, saw a web just above her lap, tore at it, recognized the distinctive crackle, and abruptly shooed everyone away. Beneath the table, the cement was littered with broken beer bottles. I scooted underneath for a look, careful of the shards underfoot and the web overhead. The table was a cement slab with steel supports, and the web covered most of its underside. The obvious place for the spider to hide was the most inaccessible spot, where three supports met in a cement recess. I looked everywhere else first, partly to find out where I could put my hand safely, partly because I couldn’t figure a way to approach the spider in that protected place without risking a bite on the head or hand. Eventually I found a twig that branched at right angles. I used it to prod around a corner. It takes a delicate touch because, anatomically speaking, a spider is nothing more than a water balloon. A black widow’s extravagantly dangerous venom grants it no special durability. It is, in fact, a particularly delicate spider, virtually defenseless outside its web. In the unlikely event you were to pick one up with your thumb and forefinger, your grip might kill it.

My gentle poking produced a response. A widow came rappelling down from the cement. Soon she was descending slowly in open air, paying out an invisible strand. I placed a can which had once held baby formula on the ground to catch her.

The literature on widows is full of their ingenious conversions of artifacts into web sites. A mother widow and her brood of hatchlings were found in the front seat of a stored car. Widows have been found in a police call box, in shoes, in well-houses and lawn furniture and bureau drawers and wardrobes. Last spring, when the ground was still slushy with half-melted snow, a friend told me he brought in a log from the woodpile and fed it to the fire, only to notice at the last minute a widow slumberous from the winter cold. The fire revived the widow, then consumed her as she scrambled to escape. A few days after I heard this story, another friend recounted a nearly identical experience.

Widows thrive in outhousesthat used to be the most common site of human-widow encounters, before indoor plumbing spread across the country. The cinderblock is now the artifact most likely to connect human skin with widow fangs, and construction workers are the most likely victims. People who go under houses to work on pipes or wires get bitten, too.

The widow is commensal with us. It lives on our labors for free, providing us with nothing substantial in return (most of the insects it eats are not pests) and generally doing us no harm. For every widow we see, many more are ensconced in our cast-offs and accouterments, living their silken lives ignorant of the human forces that shape their landscapes.

“The Spider holds a Silver Ball / In unperceived Hands,” Dickinson wrote, “And dancing softly to Himself / His Yarn of Pearlunwinds.”


Even spiders that don’t use their silk for snares may use them to extend the sense of touch. The tarantula lays a starburst of strands around its burrow; the movement of the silk tells the tarantula when an insect is within its reach.

The snare-web is also a sensory organ, for the spider builds its web to enhance its view of the world. A creature a centimeter across can feel breezes and other vibrations a meter away. The nearest analog in the animal kingdom is the human use of eyeglasses and hearing aids. The spider’s feat of construction is technological, a fact that human arrogance rarely recognizes. The world of biology went into a tizzy a few years ago when chimpanzees were found to use tools. Biologists had formerly regarded this ability as exclusively human. Evidence to the contrary can probably be found in the disused corners of any biologist’s home.

The web is an indispensable tool. A large orb-weaving spider in its web can feel the flicker of a gnat’s wing four feet away. When I was a child, I used to capture orb-weavers in jars. To my disappointment, they always died, usually overnight. The problem, of course, was that they couldn’t build their eight-foot webs in anything smaller than a barn. It wasn’t that they starvedthey died too soon for that. Picture them as human beings: their eyes plucked out, their ears stopped, their skins flayed and folded inward. Of course they died.

The black widow has a talent unusual among spiders: it can thrive in a space a fraction of the volume it uses in the wild. The web I saw in the dead man’s shack was a sort of Platonic ideal of widow-weba Milky Way tangle in the air, support strands stretching off in every direction, vertical trap-lines touching the ground, a shuttlecock of silk for a retreat. But the widow doesn’t need an ideal web any more than a man needs a mansion. It can also live in a Dixie cup. In fact, laboratories that raise large numbers of widows typically keep them in plastic cups of this size. The webs the spiders make in these confined spaces seem to have no structureno retreat, no platform. Nevertheless, they serve to capture the mealworms provided for the widows, though they don’t allow the widows to subdue cicadas and large beetles as they do in the wild.

The larger the cage, the closer the web approaches its wild ideal. Probably no cage smaller than a bath tub makes a widow entirely comfortable. But when the capacity of the container reaches about a gallon, the widow spins its retreat. Placed in a larger, and rectangular, vessel, the widow builds a confusion of silk from which the shape of a platform emerges.

To perform this experiment, shifting a widow from smaller to larger containers, is to witness the blossoming of a mind alien to and older than our own. Its hidden senses unfold in an architecture of glimmers.  


The farmer offered me bean soup. I turned that down but accepted coffee. The farmer held the jelly jar in front of his face and squinted. Inside the jar, the widow clawed at the glass in a futile attempt to climb it. She was a robust specimen with a white chevron on her back.

“Well, I’m not surprised,” he said, putting the jar down in favor of a soup spoon. “No one’s lived in that house since Pedro killed himself.”

After a while he said, “I used to use a lot of wetbacks at harvest time. Then for a few years I hired in custom cutters and only kept one regular hired hand on at a time. Pedro was the last man I ever hired.”

He insisted I stay for a second cup of coffee. When nothing was left of his soup but the wet skins of a few white beans, he went to the window above the kitchen sink and took down an egg carton from the sill and scooped out a half-handful of pills and capsules. He swallowed these with a gulp of hot coffee. His throat seemed to continue working long after the gulp, as if he were a reptile who considered swallowing an all-day job.

“Any idea why he killed himself?” I said.

“No, not really. When I went out there to clean up a little bit I sat there a while and thought how depressing that shack was. But, hell, a lot of people stayed there over the years and nobody else killed himself.” He stared into his coffee. “Of course, you never know why anybody would do a thing like that. Unless they leave a note, I guess.”

I wanted to take my leave, but couldn’t find the words. I watched the spider grope her transparent prison like a persistent mime. I looked into my coffee, which seemed brown instead of black after looking at the widow’s truer black. The table top was red, and on the wallpaper were red hearts. “My wife thinks he went to Hell,” the farmer said.

I took a sip. I kept sipping to warm myself, because the day had turned soggy and cold, but the coffee didn’t seem to stay hot long enough to help. “Because suicide is a sin,” the man continued, as if I had asked.

“What do you think?” I said because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I don’t know. One thing I do know, Pedro was a good man. He went with us to church every Sunday morning and every Sunday night. Born a Catholic, but he went with us. We’re Baptists.” He took his soup bowl to the sink and rinsed it. “Of course, most of the guys we had working for us were family men. A single guy like that, maybe he got lonely. Depressing as hell in that shack. I don’t know why a single guy would come up here. If I was young and fancy-free, I’d go somewhere else. I don’t know where. Anywhere.”

(Photo by M. Jackson)